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All quiet on the Western Front - Germany 1914

(This AAR is played as Germany in The Great War scenario, August 1914.)

Part One - The Situation in August 1914

We have examined to the events that became known as The Great War in the previous series - the Road to War. In this new series we will continue through history and take a closer look at the clash of arms that occured in Europe after August 1914. We will - of course - follow the battles and political decisions mainly from a German point of view and many of the witnesses of the time who we had the pleasure to speak to in our research of the Great War are from Germany, although combattants from other nations will get their say. We aim at a politically neutral view of the war, providing a factual look at the events that shaped the face of the continent.


The political landscape of Europe, August 1914

On August 5th, 1914, Germany and Austria-Hungary were standing alone against a host of enemies - France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, and the United Kindom along with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada. Italy and the Ottoman Empire had so far remained neutral, and the Central Powers, as the Germans and Austrian-Hungarians were commonly called, were eager to have these countries join their cause. The Habsburgs in Vienna feared a struggle against the combined might of Russia and Serbia, so that Germany had divert troops from the attempts to repeat the success of 1870/71 against France towards East Prussia to turn some of the Russian attention away from Austria.

Walter von Tecklenburg, aide in the German general staff 1914
"There was a lot of tension in the Oberste Heeresleitung shortly after the war had broken out. The Schlieffenplan was still the main source of inspirations for our operations in the west, but the amount of troops it required left the Kaiser very weary, because until victory was met in the west, the Eastern Front had to be defended. The Austrians were afraid that their armies would have to take on the Russians and Serbs alone, and so the Commander in Chief von Moltke sent a few token units to East Prussia."

In the meantime, the Auswärtige Amt was attempting to enlarge the alliance of the Central Powers who took on the largest empires all by themselves. Maybe the far flung colonies of their adversaries would turn out as an advantage in finding new allies?

Werner Grünenfels, secretary of foreign minister Gottlieb von Jagow
"Von Jagow was advised by His Majesty, Kaiser Wilhelm, to secure new alliances for the Reich. Naturally, the first natural choices in the efforts became Italy and the Ottoman Empire. Italy, because of the possibility of opening a second front against France in the south, and the Ottomans because of their proximity to key stones in the British Empire, namely Egypt and Suez, and, to a lesser extent, India. While the Turks were rather receptive towards our approaches, the Italians were surprisingly cold, which struck us all as odd, considering how they were allied to us not long ago."

However, such efforts to gain new allies would not bear fruit until later, for the moment, the Central Powers had to fight their war alone. As mentioned, the Schlieffen Plan was still the basid for German plans in the west, and so the German army was massed along the French and Belgian border, aiming to pass the French fortifications by violating Belgian neutrality and, after marching through France, encircling the French, pressing them against the German lines that held the border in Alsace-Lorraine.

While the German armies were already in their alotted positions, no such thing could be said of the Austrians. Their army corps were still on their ways to the Russian and Serb borders, spread out in Hungary. Question would be whether or not these men would make it in time before the Czar could exploit the situation.
 
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Part Two - Initial Operations (August 1914 - December 1914)

The German plan of operations made it imperative that there had to be victory in the west within 40 days after mobilization. It was guessed by the German Oberste Heeresleitung and the Große Generalstab that this would be the time Russia would require to fully put to weight their military might. True to the Schlieffenplan, the units received orders to swivel like a sickle or scythe through Belgium and Northern France to first take Paris and then press against the Maginot line from its rear.

Scheduled to march on the far right wing, General Ludendorff was appointed commander of the Garde Korps, spearheading the advance. Together with commanders von Einem, von der Goltz, and von Deimling, they led a total of 28 divisions, divided into 7 Corps across the Belgian border. Just to the south of him, 4 Corps of a total 16 divisions were moving on Ludendorff's left flank. Notable commanders there were von Bülow (XI. Korps), and von Below Forbeck (XII. Korps). Several Reserve Corps and Cavalry Corps were following just behind the main line. 56 divisions were along the French-German border, with orders to halt any French attack and an option to divert some of the German troops towards the north if it should become necessary.


German plans of invading France

Siegfried Bergendorf, Feldwebel in the XII. Reserve Korps in 1914
"When we were mobilized in August '14, it was a really strange feeling. I had been too young for the 1870/71 war, and so this was for me the great opportunity to re-live the glories of my father and grandfather who had fought at Sedan. My mood, the mood of all men was fantastic, almost as if we were going on holiday. It's hard to believe now, when I look back. And what did we know? We were out to kick the French again. We would show them what Germans were made of. It was a great adventure, even to us older non commissioned officers who got drafted back into reserve units. We thought it would be a short war, something exciting we could tell our children and grandchildren about. Not even my wife seemed worried when I boarded the train."

Battle was met first on August 11th, when the Garde Korps under Ludendorff reached Liege, commencing battle against two divisions of Belgian defenders. When the main body of the German troops arrived, the valiant defenders stood little chance and had to give up the terrain. Behind the line of Korps that marched into Belgium in August followed three reserve corps whose foremost goal was to ensure German control for the time being. Liege, after the victory of the Germans was there first target to be. Three Korps were then considered sufficient in the event of a counter attack.


The eastern theater, August 1914

While by September the Belgian army was all but annihilated and the German forces proceded west and into France, matters on the Eastern front were a little more grim. The Russians attacked, much to the surprise of Hindenburg. While the German defenders in East Prussia still rallied their forces and the Oberste Heeresleitung quickly ordered the raising of additional divisions and a further mobilization of reserves, Memel and Torun fell to the Czar's soldiers. An encounter between Tirpitz' Baltic Fleet and the Russian navy in the Baltic ended with a defeat for the Germans. The Kaiser, distressed by such defeats, was close to diverting troops from the west to the eastern theater. That would have played into the French hands, as they had urged the Russians to attack in East Prussia early for exactly that reason. However, his Grand General Staff convinced him that those setbacks were but momentary and that the quick victory against France would free forces to throw against Czarist Russia.

Hermann von Grevental, aide in Hindenburg's staff
"The eastern front 1914 was.... it's hard to describe. We had expected that the Russians would need weeks to get into gear and launch anything even remotely an offensive. We also thought they would at best be badly organized units, about the quality of irregulars. We were wrong, terribly wrong. The wires to Vienna were glowing with messages and reports, and while the Austrians were able to stem the Russians and even launch offensives of their own into Russian Poland, we were on the retreat."

Austria was in fact fighting the Russians along their whole border. The situation was quite inconclusive - Russian units occupied Austrian cities and vice versa. Further south, Serbia, with the courage of desperation, attacked across the borders with the Danube Monarchy. With the troops in the east at last united, the Germans could turn against the Russian invaders piece by piece. First, Hindenburg turned against the Russians in Torun, moving them out of East Prussia before marching north to relieve the sieged city of Königsberg, a symbol of Germany's ambitions in the Baltics in the past centuries. The battle there, however, went in favor of the Russians. Having lost half his men, Hindenburg moved back, sending urgent requests to the Große Generalstab for more men, but the earliest he could be granted them was December. Until then he hoped that the Austrian successes that became more and more appearant along the southeastern front would draw Russian troops from East Prussia. However, along the whole borderline, the Russians pressed forward till december 1914.


East Front, December 1914

In the West, the German advance slowed. Around Cambrai, 29 German divisions, numbering only 120000 men after intense combat were met by 12 fresh French divsions. German high command kept sending troops into this quagmire, trying to break the stalemate and force a breakthrough against the French, but fighting continued all through October, with both sides fighting for every inch of goround. Around Charleville-Méziers the battles were nearly as intense, if with less troops involved. Northwest of those positions, Ludendorff's right wing moved swiftly and almost unopposed through the French border regions. In eaarly November 1914, the Germans under von Eichhorn broke through at Cambrai and Charleville-Méziers. The fights had been costly, and the Germans planned to solidify their lines, replenishing their units with fresh men from the main land before continuing their pressure.

Karl Werting, recruit in the VII. Korps, that fought at Cambrai
"We were enduring days and days of attacks, advances, retreats, meeting engagements, anything in the book. Our losses were terrible, and I noticed that I stopped befriending replacements too closely, because I knew that chance would have it that I might not see them again once we entered combat. The French proved formidable opponents, and they cost us many good men. That was not at all how I had imagined the war would be. No quick battles, clean encounters, and acts of heroism. Not at all as our teachers at school had painted the picture of battle. War is hell, no matter if you're 40 years old, or 18, as I was in 1914."


West Front, December 1914
 
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Part Three - The First Winter (December 1914 - April 1915)

In mid-December the Oberste Heeresleitung finally succumbed to Hindenburg's requests and moved four army corps from the west front to the east to regain control of the lost territories. First goal was to stabilize the eastern Front along the Prussian borders, then - if possible - take Russian Poland before threatening a larger offensive towards the east. The west front had solidified, and German high command began to improve their positions, re-inforcing their lines and battle weary divisions. A major offensive was planned for Spring 1915. The Große Generalstab was certain that by then Germany had raised enough additional forces to outnumber the French and strike the fatal blow.

In the west, several assaults were made that winter. The French attempted a breakthrough at Arlon, but in vain. In Belgium, the occupation effort of the German reserve units were not finished, with divisions of irregulars occasionally appearing behind the German lines. In mid-February 1915, a French main offensive of the winter was launched against the German lines at Amiens. Several division had been withdrawn to Belgium to keep the order there, and so 70,000 defenders were met with 100,000 French and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). From Arras, where two army corps were held in reserve, the III and X Corps under generals Herrmann and Friedrichs were ordered to aid in holding the lines. The battle raged till early March, when the French finally broke off their attack. Tens of thousands had died on both sides. But that was not the end. Only ten days of lull in the battle were afforded, before the French attacked again, 110,000 French standing against 60,000 Germans under Ludendorff this time. General Burghalter's IV Korps, trying to establish German control over Cambrai, was ordered to the front immediately, together with the II Korps and the IV Reserve Korps from Lille. On April 2nd, the II Korps finally arrived at the line, and from there it was merely days till the French were refuted. The battle at Amiens became the most bloody encounter of the war so far, with Germany and France having lost a total of over 250,000 men.


During the first French assault, February 1915

Gebhard von Wegener, aide in Ludendorff's staff at Amiens 1915
"We were all rather happy when the first offensive was beaten back by our troops. Ludendorff, who I have always seen as a very reserved man, suddenly allowed himself to laugh and be jolly. Of course we didn't expect the sudden offensive only ten days later. We were clawing ourself to every inch of ground, and, when I was with Ludendorff at one of the ahead positions of our perimeter, I saw whole battalions wipe out each other. It is very hard to focus on the strategic situation when you see so many good young men, French and German, die so fruitlessly."

In the East, where the re-inforcements arrived along with additionally raised divisions, the Obertse Heeresleitung had decided to attempt and hold a line from Stettin via Küstrin and Kottbus to Görlitz. German irregulars that formed behind Russian lines, tried to bring back German control over occupied territories, but to stem the Czarist offensives, a whole different qualitiy of troops was needed. On March 10th, 1915, Russian General Brusilov attacked the German lines around Kottbus. 90,000 Russians attacked valiantly. What Brusilov didn't know was that two army corps of 60,000 were arriving within two or three days, bringing the numbers of the defenders to over 110,000. Yet, Brusilov hoped to force a breakthrough. On March 22nd, he had to break off the attack, and his troops fled in disarray. It was the first major German victory against the Russians since the beginning of the war. Hindenburg and the Oberste Heeresleitung hoped that this would mark a turning point in this theater.

Walter von Tecklenburg, aide in the German general staff
"The victory at Kottbus was a true morale booster for the whole High Command. The war in the west had stalled to a line in northern France, but we were continuously on the retreat in the east. After Brusilov had to retreat, we began to consolidate the line, so that we could go on to take matters back in our hands. Of course, we had been hoping to do so in the west, too, only months before. New units were needed, or, if not units, weapons, and fast, to avoid another deadly stalemate."

The Auswärtige Amt, in the meantime, attempted to convince their closest friends besides Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, to join the war. But despite repeated requests, Turkey did not join the Central Powers. The Austrian front in Galicia looked grim. They had pressed south in a solid line, and were already sieging Prague. An added Turkish adversary, in addition to German victories would probably not only have delayed but also prevented this situation. Already there were discussions in the German High Command about suggesting to the Austrian Emperor to create a joint general staff to better coordinate the allies' efforts. However, it was quite clear that Berlin was hoping to re-organize the otherwise crushed Austrian-Hungarian troops who, after first gains, had been beaten back thoroughly.


East Front December 1914 - April 1915
 
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Part Four - Verdun and the begin of the Eastern Counter Offensive (April 1915 - December 1915)

After the failed attack at Amiens, the French attacked at Laon on April 2nd, 1915. French General d'Esperey, in command of over 120,000 men, charged the fortified lines of German commander von Deimling. Von Bülow's Bayerisches Reserve Korps was dispatched form Charleroi-Mezières to re-inforce the 85,000 men around Laon. D'Esperey, who was more accustomed to waging defensive battles proved to be the wrong commander for the operation. After a few violent fights, he broke off the attack. Von Deimling's forces had hardly taken any losses, and Von Bülow was ordered to return to Charleroi-Mezières. The German high command was unsure of the situation in the west. Hold the line? Attack? Almost 200,000 troops seemed to be amassed in Paris and its fortresses. They were within reach, but attack would have been suicide.

After the victory at Kottbus, German troops went on the offensive in the east. Hindenburg crushed a Russian Corps at Kolberg before moving further northwest to meet the XXV Corps at Köslin, his final goal being Königsberg. Von Bothmer had been assigned to a newly raised infantry corps with strong artillery support and aimed at moving into Posen where the Russian positions were especially weak. General von Francois, finally, was to reclaim Schlesien with four Corps. If these attacks drew attention away from the battered Austrian lines, then all the better. The Austrians were hard pressed, after all. The Russians had broken through their lines, and despite heavy activity of irregular units forming behind the Russian lines, the Czarist troops began sieging Vienna in late April 1915. The Austrian Emperor pleaded to Kaiser Wilhelm to help in the struggle and help free the double monarchy's lands from the Russian onslaught. After long pleading the Kaiser agreed to send von Francois, delaying the liberation of Silesia in favor of aiding the ally to maintain their capital. That was not mere selflessness, as the Russian Corps exloiting their gains in Bohemia by moving into Regensburg and Landshut. Kuopatkin, leader of the 13th Corps was chased by von Francois and they met battle at Bayreuth. Another Russian Corps, the 43rd, was also on its way to the line. However, that tore a hole into German lines who had until then been successful at beating back the Russians, and several Corps of the Czar's armies exploited the gap, moving into Bavaria and Saxony.

For May 1915, the Germans planned a daring offensive in the west. The French lines at Verdun were down to 20,000 men, while around Nancy there were little more defenders. Many of the troops that had been stationed there had taken part in the battles at Amiens. Obviously, the French High Commmand relied on the fortifications there to halt any German advance. From Arlon, the III and VII Reserve Korps together with the XVIII Korps attacked Verdun, supported by the VI Korps from Charleroi-Mezières and the VIII Reserve Korps from Metz. A total of over 80,000 men were to attack the fortress of Verdun, outnumbering the French 4-1. At the same time, the V Korps from Metz and the XXI Korps from Strassburg were to take Nancy, 45,000 Germans against 22,000 French. Into the preparations and troop movements of the involved units fell the unfortunate sinking of the Lusitania, a freighter with United States passengers aboard, many of them died. This led to a sharp downturn between Germany and the U.S. government. On May 14th, the attack at Verdun commenced. Nancy was taken on May 30th, but at what cost? Half the German attackers had been taken out, and the advance was halted again to lick wounds. A French counter attack was repulsed. While the battle at Verdun still raged, with huge losses on either side, the French once again attempted a breakthrough near Amiens in mid-June 1915. 140,000 French were this time commissioned, facing 120,000 German soldiers. The attack was under command of a British General, Poindexter, but he was not able to make as much as a dent into the German trenches. On July 10th, after almost four weeks of intense fighting, the Germans took the fortresses at Verdun. They had lost three quarters of their forces, but new volunteers from the homeland were starting to replace the tens of thousands of dead of Verdun. Yet, they needed to halt to wait for new men to be available and to consolidate their gains, especially as fresh French troops commenced occasional counter attacks.

Walter Schlüter, recruit in the XVIII Korps at Verdun
"Verdun.... Actually, I try to forget it. But every night, I hear the screams of my friends, the shouts of our commanders, sometimes even more in panic than we were, the blasts, the gun fire, the dirt, the blood.... I don't think it will ever leave me. I lost track how often we charged the enemy lines, how often we were beaten back by those darned fortresses. But our commanders drove us forward, again, again, again. Frontal assault after frontal assault. The artillery was not much help, either. The guys just tore apart the already dead. But in the end we made it somehow. Don't ask me how, we just made it. And then commenced the counter attacks. I don't know how I made it through all of that, but sometimes I wished I hadn't, so that I would at least have my peace now."


Swedish Battles in the northern theater

A week earlier, Austrian efforts to find allies in the war of herself and Germany against the Allies bore fruit - Sweden signed a military treaty with Vienna, and Swedish troops were moved to the Russian borders. The Entente was not much deterred by it, however. In fact, Russian troops were attempting to make a surprise drive from Saxony to Berlin. In the west, the British 52nd Lowland division attempted to force a foothold in Belgium, attacking from the sea. Three divisions of the German occupational force in Belgium were quickly gathered at Brugges. On August 10th, the British were pushed back into the sea. All was quiet on the western front - discounting a few uprisings in Belgium - for the remainder of 1915.

The eastern front saw the battle of Berlin in August 1915. This was a blow to German troop morale, but the high command was determined to crush the Czar's army at the capital's gate, encouraged by the speed with which the Austrians re-took their Austrian and Bohemian lands. Only in Hungary were the Russians unchallenged still. Berlin would not fall as Vienna had! In September 1915, Berlin was safe again from the Russians, and the German troops tried to charge into the Russian lines once again, this time from even further in the west than the year before.

Friedrich Morgenroth, lietenant in the Große Generalstab
"Our strategists had analyzed the Russian tactics and had determined what they considered the 'recipe of success' so to say, of the Czarist troops. Our armies were operating in large bodies, often three corps or more. That was to ensure that the enemy could be beaten with minimal losses. However, the smaller Russian units were able to cover more terrain, allowing to bypass our few large armies easily. It was like trying to kill flies with a stone! Therefore, in October 1915, von Falkenhayn decided to adjust our tactics to the Russians'. Our armies were split into units with a maximum of six divisions. That allowed us to maneuver as quickly as the Russians, and it was easier for us to beat them slowly back to the east."

The tactics indeed seem to succeed. In November occured what was later dubbed the Wonder of Deutsch Krone. German defenders, 5,000 irregulars, were attacked by 80,000 Russians. They held out barely long enough till Hindenburg arrived with 80,000 men himself. By then the valiant defenders had caused the Russians enough damage from their fortified positions that they were annihilated when the re-inforcements arrived. Nevertheless, fighting till the end of the year remained tenacious, but by the end of the year, most of the German territory in the east was regained.


Middle Eastern theater

As if this was not enough good news, the Turkish Sultan finally succumbed to the Kaiser's pleas and joined the Central Powers in their war. That made two new allies for Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1915 - Sweden, who fought the Russians in Tornio, and on the island of Mariehamn, and the Turks, who commenced operations into the Russian Caucasus and across the Sinai, threatening the British access to the Suez Canal. All in all, it had been a successful year for the Central Powers - even though Austria-Hungary was still straining under the Russian invasion, prospects started to look better and better. However, shortly before the turn of year - as every year, there was little to no fighting on the fronts around the christmas season - the Germans were caught by surprise when the British attempted another landing behind enemy lines, this time in Dunquerque. German High Command assumed that the attack would be as light as it had been in Brugges, earlier in the year. However, to the General Staff's suprise this was different. Within a few days, the British had managed to land almost 90,000 men along the shallow beaches of Dunquerque where they were faced with only 10,000 Germans. Spearheaded by the Malta Regiment, the British Expeditionary Force under General French and supplemental troops from the 2nd Belgian Colonial Division attacked in force. At the same time, Belgian uprisings behind the front became the worst since the occupation began, tieing down even more German forces. The beginning of 1916 would be difficult for the Germans if they wanted to hold their lines in the west.


Western Front, January 1st 1916
 
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Part Five - A Turn of Tides in the East (January 1916 - December 1916)

In January 1916, the Große Generalstab decided to increase the pool of prospective recruits for the German armies. Several tens of thousands of people throughout the Reich received orders to report to their recruiting stations. Those "volunteers" were missed in farm work and in factories, but the more of them were levied, so was estimated, the sooner they would be able to return to their working places.

For the defense of Dunquerque, the Oberste Heeresleitung decided it to be most prudent, considering how backward units were often busy fighting insurgents in occupied areas at the time, to pull back the line from Amiens to Dunquerque. That would not only aid in the pushing back of the British invasion there, but also to an area that was easier to defend. Once more, Ludendorff's Garde Korps spearheaded the assault, an assault which oddly was aimed towards the homeland, not France. All of a sudden, General French was faced with 120,000 Germans. Once the British would have been defeated, the additional units from the newly raised soldiers, expected to arrive before fall, would then aid in taking back Amiens and hopefully finally pushing further into the French mainland. On January 10th, French surrendered but managed to escape unlike the remainder of his men. He would be sent to Egypt to hold the Sinai against the Turks instead. The British Expeditionary Force had seized to exist, a massive blow to the western allies.


Ludendorff, commanding the Garde Korps shortly before arriving at Dunquerque

Better even, the French had been slow to exploit the German retreat from Amiens, almost allowing Ludendorff and his men to return to their pre-christmas postitions. However, when they reached the previous line, they were met with the unexpected resistance of 100,000 French attempting to reclaim their lands. This encounter, which, with breaks, lasted till March 1916, became known as the Second Battle of Amiens. During the final throes of that mortal fight, another British attempt at landing behind enemy lines was made. The German navy had been decimated in various encounters against the Royal Navy in the North Sea, the Kattegat, and the Channel in the past months and years, and so the British could land almost unhindered near Brugges. By the time the German re-inforcements from surrounding areas met the bridgehead, six divisions had already landed under the command of General Foster. However, mustering the combined might of the German forces in Belgium, they were thrown back into the sea once more. The German navy attempted once more to break the Entente's rule of the waves, but Admiral Graf Spee lost his fateful battle in the Channel, leaving the German navy crippled for the remainder of the war.

The war in the east was marked by a slow turn of the tide in 1916. Encouraged by the Wonder of Deutsch Krone, German troops managed to fight the Russians almost completely out of their lands, with only a stubborn unit in the Memel area and a few near Danzig harrassing the German lines. More importantly, German increased pressure on the Russians slowly ensured that Austria regained control of her western lands, with Vienna liberated by Hindenburg in early May. However, with the quick Russian forces maneuvering through almost every hole in the Central Powers' fronts, the process of forcing the Czar back was a tedious one, and certainly it would take for a while to fully repulse the Russians. A factor contributing to the Central Powers' victories were the uprisings that were reported from within Russian Poland. More revolts were rumored to occur deeper in the Russian heartland. This was certainly due to the burden the continued war effort placed on the shoulders of the subjects of the Czar, making the burden nearly unbearable. Fortunately for German and Austrian-Hungarian efforts this was distracting the Russian units in the Balkans and Hungary.

Siegfried von Hagen, aide to Hindenburg in the Austrian campaign 1916
"When we drove the Russians from Vienna, it was incredible. I can not recall ever being greeted so joyfully when entering a foreign city. We were liberators and welcomed as such.But we did not idle when we had set up camp in the Imperial Capital. We received replacements, as a matter of fact, I think I saw too many replacements come and go during the war, but such is the nature of any armed conflict, no? The Russians were quite desperate. We had suffered hard losses, and during this time of recovering form battles the so-called Lenin issue was brought up."


Hindenburg's own Korps in the Austrian campaign

Hindenburg's men were badly battered during the hard fights in Austria, and so were various other armies and corps the Germans had sent to aid their allies. It was in August 1916 that a certain Vladimir I. Ulyanov, called Lenin, saught to travel into his home of Russia. The revolts in the Czar's far flung empire had obviously raised his hopes that he might be able to fulfill his destiny - to topple the Czar and bring the Communist Revolution to Russia. The German government was hotly debating the issue of granting him safe passage through German to Russia, but it was feared that his journey might enflame the socialist's hearts in the Kaiser's lands. And so it was concluded to deny him to travel to St. Petersburg. Nevertheless, the revolts in Russia spread, and re-inforcements became scarce for the Russian troops, valiantly fighting against the odds in west Austria, the Balkans, and, still flaring now and then, Bohemia and Silesia. At the end of 1916, almost half of Austria-Hungary was back under the Central Powers' control.

General Tesch, commander of XXX Corps, mustered in August 1916
"The terrain in Austria and the Balkans is a nightmare for maneuvers. Often the defender is a great advantage because of that, and if they had time to dig in, our losses would be incredible. Thus, we chased the retreating Russians from city to city until the last of them surrendered. It was a difficult task, but in the end we managed, one way or the other. Many Russians were cut off. Maybe, had they known the revolts springing up in their home country, they might have chosen to end the fighting sooner."

In the Middle East, the Turks had gained considerable ground against the British. The United Kingdom's footholds in Arabia had been taken, and the Ottomans even had managed to surprise the British in Egypt, taking the Suez, Cairo, and Alexandria. They had tried to hold their line, but with the BEF having been destroyed in the doomed landing at Dunquerque, the British Empire had had to divert troops from their colonial holdings to the European theater, leaving her weakened there.


Turkish Campaign in Egypt, 1916

With such successes, German High Command laid out their plans for the war. 1917 was supposed to see the final drive of Russia from Austrian-Hungarian soil and to secure the borders of 1914 in the east. Once that was achieved, attempts would be undertaken to occupy Russian Poland and parts of Ukraine as possible spoils of war, which should be easy as the areas in question were wrecked by revolts. Once a seperate peace in the east was made, they final assault on France would be made, possibly as late as fall 1918.


The Turks in the Caucasus, 1916
 
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Part Six - Brest-Litovsk and its Aftermath (January - June 1917)

However, the plans of German High Command found surprising assistance from Russia. Militarily the war had seemed to go well for the Russians. However, their troops in Austria-Hungary had worn thinner and thinner, spreading thin. Militarily, it was a matter of time till the Austrians and Germans would remove them from the lands. Small, disperes units of Russians were still roaming the countriside, slowly rounded up in skirmishes and riven towards the borders. At home in Russia, matters were grim. The continued war effort, the commissioning of new units to the battles, the war production, together with the low level of rights the lower classes enjoyed brewed up dangerously. Militancy among the German population was rising as well, but thanks to the various liberties open revolt had been avoided so far. Revolts started to break out in Russian Poland in 1916 first, from there it spread to the Ukraine, and to the areas around St. Petersburg and Moscow. Even in Siberia did the common people rise up against the power of the Czar. There were two choices for the Russians. One was to keep fighting as much as possible and hope to get a favorable peace, but facing the chance that before any victory was met - and the reluctance of the Austrians to make peace, thanks to German support didn't bode well here - the Empire would crumble from inside. The other option was to seek peace immediately, even take territorial losses to end the fighting on foreign soil and end the revolts quickly with an iron fist.


Revolts in Russia, early 1917

The negotiations took place in a town called Brest-Litovsk, in Russian Poland. The Germans knew the Russians were desperate. And therefore they bargained hard. And got what they wanted in the end. Continuing the war would have meant certain doom for Russia, maybe now there was a chance to end one part of the fighting, and pacify the own lands again. The Czar had overstretched his armies and overburdened his people. The conditions of the peace of Brest-Litovsk were harsh. Finland was to be released as an independent nation. Germany received the Baltic coast, large sways of Russian Poland and the Ukraine. Russian troops were to withdraw from German and Austrian-Hungarian soil. There were still insurgents within Germany's new borders, but the armies in the east were sent out to crush them swiftly. Having learned from the near-deadliness of a sudden Russian offensive in the east, Germany and Austria-Hungary decided to create a buffer between their Empires and the Czar's lands. In the Baltic and in the Ukraine, buffer states were created, into which a future Russia attack would run first, so that Germany and Austria-Hungary would have more time to prepare. In the Baltic, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were created, German satellites in all but name. Between Russia and Hungary, the Ukraine was founded. Only near Brest-Litovsk the Germans retained a border with Russia. The independence of Poland was discussed, but as that would not have been undertaken peacefully without ceding them traditional German lands, this was not put into effect. Revolts in cities like Warsaw, Kalisz, Radom, or Siedlce throughout the year were the result. Nevertheless, the war in the east was over. Russia managed to force her western territories, or rather what had been left of them, back into subservence to the Czar, but east of the Urals the situation was out of control.


The political landscape after Brest-Litovsk

Franz Wiedekind, German translator at Brest-Litovsk
"The Russians were desperate. You could see it from their faces, grey, old, tired. They had come to bargain for their lives. They knew that even though no enemy was inside their borders - I am not counting the rebels - their Empire was a house of cards that threatened to come tumbling down, and every soldier was needed to get this situation under control. During a short break I had a chance to talk to the Russian translator in proivate. He told me how terrible the situation in Russia really was. The people had barely enough to eat. Minimum work days, health insurance, pension funds, and so much more privileges our workers enjoyed, none of them were available for Russian workers and peasants. They could barely buy the good they needed for everyday life, many not even that. The faith in the crown had been lost. If the Romanov dynasty wanted to survive, thr Czar would have to sue brute force."

In hindsight, it was a very close call for Austria-Hungary. Had the Germans intervened a bit slower, the double monarchy would very likely have fallen. The same can be assumed for the case of Italy joining the Entente. Fortunately for the Central Powers, Italy was unwilling to join either side, and at least the good relationship between Berlin and Rome contributed to the Italian neutrality, although the Oberste Heeresleitung would have preferred for Italy to open a second front against France. Germany was eager to move west now with full force, but the Austrians were still weary about the Serbian front which had been very quiet in the past years. Now was the time to punish the country which - in the eyes of the Germans and Austrians - had been the cause for the war, and both countries were now moving their troops into positions around the Serb lines. The Oberste Heeresleitung reverted their command privileges over some of the Austrian units back to tbe Austrian General Staff. The west was still held, and after the occupation of Serbia, the western front would be in the full focus of the planning of the Große Generalstab again.

However, the campaign in Serbia was met with unexpected resistance. Despite the peace with Germany and Austria-Hungary, and defying the situation at home, Russia had placed several divisions under Serbian command, strengthening the defenders in the Balkans. The Serbs had valiantly begun an offensive into Bosnia and Hungary, trying to exploit the distraction the Russian forces posed. They had gained some ground at Sarajevo and on their northern borders, and to drive them out of their entrenched positions there would be no small challenge.

Erich Ludwig, soldier in the Bayerische Korps, Balkans 1917
"If the terrain in the east was absolutely terrible somewhere, it was the Balkans. Hills, mountains, valleys, rivers, forests. All together. Not only was it painful to march all the miles that we tracked in that environment. Even worse was that attacking an enemy who had dug in in such a place was almost certain suicide."

Till the second half of 1917, the largest part of German units in the east had reached the Serbian lines, seeking for weak points together with her Austrian allies. It was time to make a quick move, so that 1918 would see the decision in the west.


The Serbian Theater, July 1st, 1917 - Overview of German commanders awaiting new assignments
 

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Part Seven - Breakthrough in the West? (July 1917 - December 1917)

Alarming news arrived from St. Petersburg. Obviously, the Czar had fallen. Even though the German Kaiser held no deep feelings for his Russian counterpart - not anymore, at least, unlike before the war - this was not the way matters were supposed to go. Russia, an empire run by workers and peasants? Unthinkable! Yet, the red banner was flying proudly over the palace at St. Petersburg. The land was still in revolt, though, and the conservative powers in Europe hoped that there was still a way to return the natural order of things to Russia. For the moment, however, Germany and Austria had to focus on Serbia.


The new icons of Russia

It was fall, when the full brunt of the Central Powers' armies met the Serbian lines and entrenchments. In the difficult terrain, the battles against the well dug in Serbs became some of the bloodiest of the whole war. In the campaign in north Serbia, Germany alone lost over 60,000 men in three months of vicious fighting. Regardless, the Central Powers pushed onward. The Serb King attempted to sign a white peace with his adversaries, but he was denied the request. In fact, the Austrians, feeling humiliated after the near defeat against Russia, were now eager to make up for it in the fight against the balkan country. They commited their military to almost full extent to the campaign, partially putting them under German command. The Kaiser promised Austria the country should it fall, which was - after months of slow progress - now expected for 1918. The Serb army was starting to disintegrate, making it easier for the Cenral Powers to commence a slow occupation of the country.

Hindenburg was appointed commander of a newly raised Infantry Corps with heavy artillery support, and he oversaw the Serbian campaign himself. He marched from victory to victory, and even though he had a remarkable battle record, even he was slow on the unfavorable terrain in Serbia.

The west front till August 1917 had been exceptionally quiet. A few token attacks at Amiens and Laon by the French had bloodied the Entente's noses, but nothing else. In August, another major German offensive was mounted. The reason for the timing was rather simple. After months of secret negotiations and promises from the German government, Italy had finally decided to show color. In early August 1917, the kingdom of Victor Emmanuel III joined the Central Powers in their war effort. Immediately, Italian divisions moved onto the border to France, and the Italian navy, although outdated compared to the French and British, began campaigns in the Mediterranean. From Libya, troops moved into Egypt, aiding the Turks fighting the British who were at one time surrounded, then broke their way free to the Sudan.

Manfred von Tannhausen, secretary in the Auswärtige Amt 1917
"The correspondence between Berlin and Rome had been rather frequent during the whole war, and it was definitely the good relationship between the countries which the Kaiser enforced that had kept the Italians from the Entente's side so long, and eventually - when the war in the east was, except for the obviously minor issue of Serbia, over, Italy feared she might not make it into the victor's boat in time. Turkey was slowly seizing Egypt, a prize Italy would so have loved. Similar went for mediterranean assets of France in both Africa and Europe. The main reason, in my opinion, for Italy to join the Central Powers was that they didn't want to be late when the bounty was shared."


The French-Italian Front, late 1917

Fortunately for the French, the border to their Italian neighbours had been defended during the duration of the war, and so the Italians found themselves in indecisive skirmishes on the border, with neither gains nor losses for either of them. Even though the immediate tactical importance of the Italian front can be debated, what stands clear is that this new theater kept French troops from arriving at the front shared with the Germans. The Germans exploited this situation in August, shortly after the signing the alliance with Italy. Twenty divisions, 120,000 men were to assault the French near Châlons. Only 75,000 defenders stood against them, but the fighting, led by a rather unknown General Spiegl on the German side, was one of the bloodiest encounters till then. Germans lost near 60,000 in the atatck, while the French only retreated when they had withered to 25,000 men. Those heavy losses were what prevented the Germans from exploiting the gap in the front that was before them. Fearing additional divisions in the French countryside ahead, they halted once again, waiting for reinforcemets.

So the war entered its forth christmas season. Plans were made to connect the German and Italian lines along the French eastern border, but they were dismissed. 1918 was the year that had to bring the decision. France was faltering. The population was having a hard time, having to cope with less and less, as material and ressources were funneled into the war effort. Occasional uprisings occured in rural France, and everywhere in Europe, there was a fear that the Russian tragedy might repeat itself again. The famous words "A specter is haunting Europe - the specter of communism" were already in many mouths. The German government did what they could to ensure that the people had access to what they needed. Content people are not revolutionaries.


The West Front in late 1917

A theater not discussed in depth so far is the colonies in Africa and Asia. The German garrisons and cruisers in East Asia were quite fast to falter and surrender to Australian and New Zealand forces. In Africa, the matter was different. In Togo, there was a weary truce. The 1895 agreement among colonial powers to not take European tensions to the dark continent had only prevailed there. In German South West Africa, the German Schutztruppe and South Africans were playing hide and seek in the Namib desert. Territories occupied by the Entente were taken back by the Germans quickly, and major encounter were rare. In Cameroon, the Germans had rather quickly been disposed with the troops from British and French colonies. Only in German East Africa was major fighting going on. With volunteers from the home country, one General von Lettow-Vorbeck managed to muster a force of 30,000 men, harassing the where they found them, although large parts in East Africa were eventually lost. However, with the Italian intervention and the Turkish gains in the North, he hoped that in 1918 he could make up for the losses and maybe even take the war to Kenya.

Johann Andresen, German farmer in East Africa
"When war broke out, there was an unbelievable enthusiasm among us settlers. We had held good relationships with our English neighbours up till then, but this was a matter of German against England, how could we not fight for our country? Besides, with all the wonderful lands that the British and Belgians held, the unused djungles and steppes, this was the opportunity to make a fortune and take what we wanted. Of course, things didn't go as we had thougt.... [laughs] But at the end of the day, do I think it was worth it? Most definitely. Would I take up the rifle again? Absolutely."


Africa 1917 - Cameroon almost lost, v. Lettow-Vorbeck harassing the British in East Africa, Hide and Seek in Southwest, Togo at peace
 
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Part Eight - The Peace to End all Wars? (January 1918 - September 1918)

The last eight months of the Great War began with smashing victories of the Central Powers. Italy slowly advanced into Souther Frence, while the breathing air for the Serbs got thinner by the day. Austrian and German troops moved into the Serb mainland, and Belgrade was under siege. Nevertheless, until the surrender of the Serb king, some time would still pass. On the Western Front, Ludendorff died a tragic death during another French attack on Amiens. The Germans, however, already moved troops from the Eastern Theater towards the French border. In May, official talks with the Belgian king were underway, discussing the terms of a peace treate between Germany and Belgium. The country had been occupied by the Germans for over three years now, and even though the Belgian expeditionary forces under British command in Africa fought bravely, the stable front in France, in addition with the Central Powers' success in the east, ensured the Belgians that seeking a peace was the only viable option. The terms were harsh. Belgium was allowed to keep her colony in Africa. However, the largest part of the country fell to the Germans according to the peace treaty signed on March 23rd, giving them additional access to the North Sea.


German Acquisitions in Belgium

This finally held the German back free, so to say, and they were able to commit even more troops to the frontlines in France. In fact, they did plan an offensive for the Fall of 1918, aiming for the French capital itself, the fortified city of Paris. The way there was paved by the stunning victory achieved in Belgrade in May. The Serb government had to accept the terms of the Emperor in Vienna. Almost two thirds of the country came under Austrian-Hungarian rule. Nevertheless, for the Germans it was an expensive victory, bought with the death of Hindenburg in battle only a few days before the signing of the peace treaty on May 18th. Now the Austro-German armies were free for operations in the west and every dispensable division was sent to the line, massing on the outer fortification of Paris just in time when news from across the Atlantic reached the European battlefields.

The United States had joined the war effort of the Entente in late June, trying to jump to their aid in a struggle that seemed hopeless now on French soil. The news caused a flurry in German High Command. the plans for an offensive on Paris were accelerated. If there was a chance to end the war, it had to be taken now, now allowing the United States of America to bring its full weight in men and material to the battlefield. The assault on the French capital commenced on August 1st, 1918. Three weeks of intense fighting marked the final encounter in this deadly conflict. The French and Germans fought bravely, neither wanting to give up on the greatest prize in the war. For the French it was a matter of life and death, and for the Germans no less so. The fateful battle raged for over three weeks, with wave after wave of Germans running against the French defenses, and in the end, almost 200,000 of the 320,000 German attackers were taken out of action, while the French force holding the capital, originally 140,000 strong, had no choice but to surrender. This broke the French morale. A few desperate counter attacks were undertaken in the following week, but eventually, France had to acknowledge the overwhelming German victory, and even the prospect of the Americans sending troops did not fire the spirits any more.

On September 7th, 1918, the French humiliation was complete. In Versailles, the place where Germany had been founded by acclamation 47 years earlier, the Entente had to sign the most devastating peace treaty they had experienced so far. France gave up all their holdings in Northwest Africa to the Germans and in part the Austrians. The British, not beaten as badly as the French came out better than the French. They "only" lost the Sinai to the Turks, as well as Belize and Gibraltar to the Germans, along with various holdings in the Pacific. In hindsight, it was possibly the English navy that saved Britain from greater humiliation. Thus ended the Great War of 1914 - 1918.

Karl Bäumer, Lieutenant in the 2nd Garde Korps
"The victory parade on the Champs Élysees was magnificent. In five columns we were marching down the broad street, with the Kaiser on a balcony, watching over us. The French government was also present, but in seats below Wilhelm II. I saw newsreels later of them - they looked as if they were attending a funeral. And I think in a way they were. They had fought bravely and as hard as they could, but in the end, but they had to surrender in the end, nevertheless. I think France will never again be the same. And neither will be the Kaiserreich. Our victory was even more splendid than in 1871. And if I think of how Germany blossomed after that war, I hope that it will be even more glorious now, even though many of her best sons have given their lives for the greater good."


Africa after the Versailles Treaty

The Great War changed the traditional shape of Europe forever and cost an unimaginable amount of men and ressources on all sides. Russia had truned into a state where the proletariat was nominally the ruling power. In the buffer between Russia and her western neighbours satellites of Germany had sprung up, some of them under foreign rule for centuries. Turkey, for centuries in demise, now had powerful friends who would certainly help them to modernize further and strengthen what was left of their once glorious empire. France would turn its attention away from colonialism and instead a dangerous nationalism calling for revenge for this humiliation would brew within its borders. The U.S., wanting to help, but being ultimately late, focused on their hemisphere and the Pacific again, where there would form another hotspot between the United States, Germany, and the ever strengthening Japan. Who knows what further conflicts the future will hold?


The New World Order, 1919